Introduction to Western Where

In the summer of 2016 I was driving from eastern Washington down to California. My father had been hospitalized following a heart attack, and the radio was full of presidential campaign rhetoric. How could I not be dismayed by the exploitative cynicism of Make America Great Again? Yet also frustrated by the other campaign’s seeming failure to understand that slogan’s coercive, corrosive power. And as I drove through the ranch land east of the Cascades, then across the mountains, and finally on down to places that had names on the map, I began framing the pieces of “In This America,” scribbling them on paper scraps as I stopped along the way, rest stops, gas stations, a road side café. The poems of the first two sections echo out and imagine back from “In This America,” so that the end is in some sense the beginning and the beginning the end.


In the hill country of northern California when I was a boy in the 1950s and 1960s, it was said, A man’s home is his castle. And as a boy, a working-class boy in the west, I took that for granted. What could be more American than providing a home for the woman who tended it and brought her King his can of Lucky Lager. Single wide or tract house bungalow made no difference.

The saying, of course, assumed (implied and enforced?) roles and inequalities that as a boy, a working-class boy in the west, I failed to notice, because they were mostly unconscious, and so went without saying. And in any case the inequality that most directly shaped my reality (even as I never quite thought about this either) had to do with class and to a lesser extent with region—something I discovered when I went east to a place I thought was called Eye-thack-uh. But wasn’t.

Today, the saying might go: A man’s truck is his castle. The more chrome the better. Was it Teddy Roosevelt who advised Drawl softly and drive a big truck? Perhaps not, but there’s a shift here across the decades from the end of the Second World War as the belief (perhaps even a faith) that Here is where we will be able to be us turned into the question of How can I be noticed? How can I be? And in between these two is maybe Roger Miller’s 1965 classic, “King of the Road”:

Rooms to let, 50 cents
No phone, no pool, no pets
I ain’t got no cigarettes
I’m a man of means by no means
King of the road

No home, no truck, no cigarettes, but a king of the nowhere that is everywhere in a cheap motel room and the song playing over and over on both pop and country radio as if this were a comic fantasy of escape, instead of a threat, a possible fate.


“Me and Bobby McGee” includes the line Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose. Most people probably know that line from Janis Joplin’s recording. But Kris Kristofferson, who also recorded it, wrote it as a country song. And the Freedom in these two is not the same, nor is the nothin’.

In Joplin’s version we turn away from mere social conventions (and restrictions and coercive inequalities). We trade the mortgage payment on the suburban ranch house and the dream of paying country club dues for the freedom of the open road and taking whatever comes as it comes. And this rejection of (what Dylan once termed) suck-cess is a kind of liberation—bittersweet in its cost but also a kind of redemptive authenticity.

In Kristofferson’s version, the me is already on the social and economic margin, already outside the possibility of suck-cess. And the Freedom that comes from walking away from that cheap motel room comes in recognizing that one never had anything to lose in the first place. In “Me and Bobby McGee” as a country song, Freedom is accepting that loss is all one has ever had and all one is allowed to have. That, too, is a kind of bittersweet authenticity.

The world imagined (and in part remembered) in these poems is probably closer to Kristofferson’s “Bobby McGee” than to Joplin’s—much as I loved her vision of the song and love it still. And just as I love Kristofferson’s, even as I know they cannot both be true and yet know they are.